REGENSBURG (David Hein's Eye on the Future) - A few years back there was the "Free Enes" campaign to allow Enes Kanter to play for the University of Kentucky. Back then it was the NCAA saying Kanter was ineligible to play collegiately after having received pay for playing professionally in Turkey.
Well, it's about time to start up a new campaign - Let's "Free Mario".
The reason: Emerging Croatian star Mario Hezonja needs to be freed from the constraints of playing at Barcelona.
For all the good of learning the game under the tutelage of Barcelona coach Xavi Pascual and practicing alongside veterans like Juan Carlos Navarro, Bostjan Nachbar, Kostas Papanikolaou, Marcelinho Heurtes and Ante Tomic, Hezonja is missing valuable playing time at a crucial age needed to develop his game.
The Dubrovnik native, who will turn 19 in late February, is not playing for Barca's second team in the Spanish second division LEB Gold because it doesn't provide him enough competition. But Mario also hasn't really cracked Pascual's line-up in earnest.
Going into this week, Hezonja has seen action in eight of Barcelona's 12 Euroleague games, totaling 42 minutes with just one showing of more than six minutes - in which he had five points on 2-4 shooting with one three-pointer and one rebound in 15 minutes against CSKA Moscow. His Euroleague averages are 1.5 points, 0.5 rebounds and 0.1 assists in 5.3 minutes.
Things are a bit better in the Liga Endesa where he is averaging 3.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.3 blocks in 8.4 minutes over 10 games. Hezonja's main playing time is coming in blowouts or games against some of Spain's weakest opponents.
His top game of the season came in late October against La Bruixa d'Or in which he collected eight points, 11 rebounds and one assist in a season-high 21 minutes. Last weekend he had seven points, two rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 17 minutes against UCAM Murcia. It was the third time in the last four games that he played at least 10 minutes.
While those numbers are promising and productive for the amount of playing time he is receiving, it's at least debatable if that's the right way for him to develop a talent which many consider world class level.
Maybe Hezonja and his development would be better served being sent on loan to a lower level team and playing a bigger role in that club and taking more responsibility.
Take, for example, his fellow Croatian Dario Saric, who is 14 months older than Hezonja. At this time last year, Saric was still 18 years old and playing big minutes with a leadership position for Cibona Zagreb. For the season, he averaged 15.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.0 blocks in the Croatian league and led Cibona to the title.
Saric once again this season has major responsibility with Cibona and he is able to further develop his game on the court.
Hezonja meanwhile is stuck behind the likes of Papanikolaou, Nachbar, Alex Abrines and Brad Oleson for minutes on the wings.
It's time for Hezonja to get the chance to spread his wings. Eye on the Future calls out to Barcelona: "Free Mario".
We all want see his soar to new heights. Send him on loan to a mid-level Spanish team and let him work on taking the next step. He will be that much better when he comes back. And we all get to see him develop.
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